Sunday, December 08, 2013

Thanksgiving report, a bit late

I deserted the blog over the past few weeks. First, my parents visited for a week during Thanksgiving, and now I'm facing a looming deadline at work. In the meantime, I will use pictures to make up for my lack of posts.

For Thanksgiving, my parents and I celebrated with friend E&K, and their toddler son B. The dinner was great, if I do say so myself. Since I had to work, I planned the menu, but my mother executed most of it. I am not a fan of traditional Thanksgiving food, so when E&K decided they would make lamb, I was happy to provide side dishes that complemented it. Instead of mashed potatoes, we had samosas, and instead of candied sweet potatoes, we had sweet potato gnocchi with brown butter. Add some Brussels sprouts and a fruit salad, and you're done. The division of labor was perfect - my mother and I provided most of the food, and the (busy) parents E&K provided the hosting, lamb, and wine. 

E shows off the crab wine holder, a styling touch to any dinner table.
Before my folks left, we took a trip to Great Falls, which is a small national park where the Potomac River picturesquely cascades over rocks. The white behind my parents is the river - that's all whitewater, not ice. It's know as an extremely challenging (and dangerous) place to kayak.
Ada and I survey the falls.

I shall try to post a bit more, but if you don't hear from me, know that I am busy with excel spreadsheets and powerpoint slides.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


     I have had many opportunities in the past few months to increase my self-efficacy. In case you don't know what self-efficacy is (and I didn't, until a colleague in Miami taught me about it), self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to do something. For example, I strongly believe that I can cook almost anything, but I don't believe that I can play sports or do computer programming. In science (and perhaps in other fields, although I don't know the research there), your science self-efficacy is connected to whether you'll be successful in science. And one way that you build your self-efficacy is by trying new activities and being successful at them.
     I lived on my own as an adult for many years before getting married, so I'm not too intimidated about taking over some of Andrew's tasks, like paying the bills. But one of the beauties of marriage, as far as I'm concerned, is the division of labor. You only have to be good at half as many things as when you were single. So I was good at cooking, cutting hair, purchasing clothes, and staying in touch with our families. Andrew was good at keeping the car running, training the dog, and cleaning the house. Now, all those jobs are mine as well. It is overwhelming to take on every task another person used to do, but each week I manage a few more of them.
    My most recent accomplishments were making cat food and roasting coffee beans. These tasks were Andrew's, and of course, the notes that he kept for these activities were cryptic, and written only for him. "10 minutes at mark 2" doesn't tell me much about how to roast. But with some careful googling, I am drinking good coffee and the cat is eating homemade pork food. And my self-efficacy for both of these task is increasing.
     And thanks to my Star Trek friends, S and N, I'm increasing my self-efficacy in the handyman realm. After our success with the toilet replacement, I came back last weekend and learned how to clean gutters. (I also learned that ladders oscillate a lot when you climb up to second-story gutters.) They are also building a chicken coop, which let me learn how to use a circular law and an electric drill. The hammer I already knew how to use, but it wouldn't hurt if I got a bit more efficient with that.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Social butterfly

Over the past few months, I've been working on making more friends. Luckily, I started from a good place, what with my friends from graduate school and a neighbor that shares the garden. I've realized that when I want to make friends in a new place, I use a rule I developed as an exchange student in Germany. The rule is: when invited, go. Of course I say no if I'm sick or to make sure I don't over schedule myself. But I don't allow myself to say no just because I'm not sure if the activity sounds like fun.

In Germany, that meant that I went to the equivalent of a Boy Scout cookout, and to movies I wouldn't have chosen. Here it means that I tried out a new (to me) cafe and will go bowling next week. And in the last few weeks, I've viewed Native American dolls, went on a tour of the National Building museum, and sang in a choir a few times.

Thank goodness no one has invited me to go to a football game.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Fall Wrapup

It feels like nearly the end of fall. As the temperatures have been dropping and the the leaves changed, I've reflected several times how happy I am that we moved to DC. Not only did this put me closer to my parents, but it meant that I've experienced my first fall in three years. It was hard to leave friends, and a job I loved, in Miami, but living in a tropical climate helped me realize how much I love four distinct seasons.

Inspired by my cousin, who picks and processes kilos of apples each year, I made applesauce and a few apple cakes. I love applesauce, but I do not love peeling apples. I think a food mill would separate out the peels in a cooked sauce, but I also don't own a food mill. So I tried a blender recipe: core the apples, puree them raw in the blender, then cook to desired consistency. In this fashion, I turned five pounds of apples into sauce in about 30 minutes. I don't mind the thicker, chewier sauce that results, but if you prefer a very fine, creamy applesauce, this recipe, with its tiny shreds of peel, is not for you.

I'm also working my way through the 25 pounds of green tomatoes that have been slowly ripening in my bedroom. Every few days I pick out a few rotten ones and half a dozen ripe ones. I don't think they'll all ripen, which is why I need to find some green tomato recipes. I can only eat so much fried food, so I tried a green tomato cake (verdict: delicious) and may need to make some green tomato pickles.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


I just realized that I need to post this picture today, or it will be old news. A neighbor organized a pumpkin carving party, and here are the results. Mine is the second from the left.

Although I've only lived here for six months, I've met a fair number of neighbors, which makes me feel really welcome. I think the garden really helps - not only have I met fellow gardeners, but people walk by while I'm working and talk to me. I guess that means that someday, when I have my own house, I should make sure there is a small vegetable garden in the front yard, so that I can meet the new neighbors.

Sunday, October 27, 2013


Friday was precisely three months since Andrew's death. I now understand how new parents know the exact age of their child. "He'll be fourteen months next Tuesday," they say. When really big events happen in your life, you don't have to keep track of when they happened; you just know.

Saturday was Andrew's UK memorial. His family did a lovely job arranging it, and included me in as much of the planning as possible. I'm glad I didn't attend, simply because the time off and expense of traveling to the UK would have been overwhelming. I also didn't know Andrew's extended family as well as his immediate family, and I'm in contact with his immediate family regularly. But my thoughts were with them all day.

This morning I'm off on another business trip. Trips, like anything that is not part of my regular routine, are hard. But I know that the best way to make all these things easier is to simply do them.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Guarding the gates

Just a quick note today. I work at a building that houses four different physics societies. There was a lecture on the history of the building this week. There I learned that these two dogs, who guard the door I enter every morning, are named Electron and Positron.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fixing stuff

     My father and brother had a tradition of monthly "work days", where they'd take turns working on home improvement projects at each other's houses. We had emulated this tradition here in Maryland, with our friends N and S. I asked to keep the tradition going even though Andrew is gone. This means, though, that I need to pull my own weight: instead of helping to make dinner, I am learning how to fix things.
     This month, we replaced a toilet. I watched how to use a torch to loosen the nut corroded to a bolt after decades of disuse (but next time I'm going to ask to use the torch myself).

I also learned the benefits of being small when you're working in a small house - that's me behind the wall, screwing the bowl to the tank while N steadies it.
At the end, I also used a chainsaw for the first time. I was glad it was a smaller, electric version, because that seemed intimidating enough.
I must admit, I was both sore and proud of myself by the end of the day.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A flash of happiness

When I flew to Denver last week, I got to watch a lightning storm from my plane window, and it was one of the most awe-inspiring things I've seen in a long time. The bank of clouds was at the same altitude as the plane, and far enough away that I could see a huge swath of clouds. The stars shone above, and in the clouds, the lightning danced. The flashes happened fast, several times a second. Sometimes they made the cloud glow, sometimes a bolt was almost visible.  I looked around at the people around me, but they were asleep or reading their books, and no one seemed to be glued to the window like me. It has been quite a while since I felt, even for a moment, happy that I was experiencing life. I used to feel that way all the time, and I trust that, eventually, it'll be a regular part of my life again.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Garden success story

     Since this was my very first garden, I'll admit that I didn't know what I was doing. I planted a lot of different vegetables that I thought I'd like to eat, then crossed my fingers and hoped. When I gained a second garden plot later in the season, I decided to plant a long row of sweet potatoes, because I had heard that they like hot weather. 
     What I later learned is that you don't have to wait to eat the potatoes - you can eat sweet potato greens. In fact, they are one of the few greens that grow during the heat without during bitter (at least in my experience). So I ate sweet potato green salads, and then I harvested all the greens right before I dug up the potatoes. 
     I was a bit nervous about harvesting the potatoes, because experienced gardeners had warned me that you could have verdant growth above ground and yet no tubers.
Success! There were, in fact, sweet potatoes in the earth.
We harvested 5 buckets of greens (some for my neighbors, because even I can only blanch and freeze so many greens) and a crate full of potatoes. I forgot to weight the crate, but it was too heavy for me to pick up, so I'd guess that I got about 25 pounds. Now those potatoes are all sitting on my bedroom floor on a tarp. They need to cure for several months. During this time, the cuts heal, and then the enzyme do their magic to make the potato sweet. I'm looking forward to many batches of sweet potato gnocchi, topped with pesto (because my basil plants grew equally as well).

Sunday, October 06, 2013

In the woods

     Two weeks ago I got to go camping in Pennsylvania with old friends. They are all physicists, except for one lone artist/entrepreneur, and I've known all of them for years. It was a bit overwhelming to plan for even a weekend trip. For the first time it many years it was my job to do everything: plan the food, buy the groceries, find all the camping gear, and pack the car. But I had company for most of the trip, thanks to my friends B&R, who flew to Baltimore to travel up with me. Then I had all my friends around, to help me set up the tent and loan me soap or salt when I didn't have it. 
     The weather was terrific until Saturday night, when it rained for most of the night, and everyone liked the dumpling soup I made when it was my turn to cook. Cooking while camping is great, because everything tastes better outside.
     Here are a few other highlights:
Admiring a waterfall on our "hike". I have to admit that it was more of a walk in the woods than a hike.
Two-year-olds discovering a lake, which led to some parents discovering that the didn't bring enough dry clothes. No, I am not a bad photographer; the child on the left was anonymized.
While walking around the lake, I remembering thinking how much I missed this type of terrain in Miami. See that hill? That's an elevation change of more than 5 feet! 
On previous camping trips we had big tick problems. This time, some people took serious anti-tick measures, including taping their socks to their trousers. In the end, ticks weren't a serious problem, whether you were using DEET or masking tape.
Okay, so some of the campers preferred cottage cheese and cheerios to the dumpling soup and vegetable-scrambled eggs that made up our meals.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Nature, in all its forms

The biggest problem in my life right now (aside from serious grief, of course) is fleas. Although the dog has left the house for a while, the fleas have not. I have been battling this problem for a while, and I'm sad to say that I don't appear to be winning. At best, I'm in a stalemate.

What I have tried, unsuccessfully: flea baths for the cat, flea bombing for the house (twice), frequent vacuuming, monthly flea topical medicine for the cat, diatomaceous earth on the carpets, and daily flea combing. What I have not yet tried: waiting until it is below freezing outside and the opening all the windows. Sure, that might burst my water pipes, but it would probably kill the fleas.

I have not yet given up on flea combing and vacuuming, as the Internet promises me that these methods will eventually work. Flea combing is a tedious, semi-disgusting job which I do every 12 hours. I used to hate it, but recently a group of friends (all physicists) convinced me to start counting the number of fleas I remove. They argued that this was the only way to see whether the problem was getting better or worse, and to measure the effectiveness of various treatments. This has been pretty cool -  now I am not removing blood-sucking parasites, I am taking data! I am doing science.


In other news, it was free museum day on Saturday. The Smithsonian organized museums around the country to not charge admission for a day. I'm not one to pass up an opportunity like that, so my friend D and I visited a historic house and gardens in DC. It was the kind of place that has an army of gardeners, and acres of formal gardens, and it was beautiful. I really like it that I've lived in DC three times, for over ten years total, and I'm still discovering places I've never seen before.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thinking slowly

My brain is slow these days. I can see it in my need for nine hours of sleep every night, in my inability to do much beyond the basic chores of working, making dinner, and feeding the cat. In fact, I was so overwhelmed by dog care that my parents are took Ada the dog back to Ohio for a few months. And at work, I'm doing my job reasonably well, although more than once my boss has come into my office, asked me to do something, and then once she left, I just didn't do it. Because I forgot.

I've been wondering what my brain is doing, if it's not managing my life. I know that I'm "processing", but since my job is to think about learning and cognition, that isn't a sufficient explanation. Luckily, I've been reading a book about research on grief. (And right now, all the academics are nodding, thinking, "I'd want to read about grief research too, if I were grieving.") I finally got a partial explanation of what my brain is doing. I know that brains automate a lot - we have routines for doing lots of things, so we don't have to think about them very much. But my routines, and my assumptions about the world, were challenged. How many places should I set at the table? Who walks the dog? Do I say "we" or "I"? Suddenly I have to think through everything very carefully, because everything is new and I can't trust the world to behave in the way that I thought it did. So I can't do as much, or as quickly, because I have to constantly test if what I'm going to do is the right thing.

I like knowing what's going on in my brain. But it is still very, very hard waiting while it figures out the world again.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Digging in the dirt - a retrospective

     It turns out that I love gardening. I planted my first garden this year, motivated mainly be the fact that a garden plot came with the apartment and I hoped to save money. By the middle of the summer, I found myself wishing that I had even more work to do in the garden, and by then I knew that I was hooked.
     I think gardening can be a hobby aligned with frugal living, but then you have to garden carefully. I kept a careful tally of all my expenses during the summer, and I can report that I spent $162 on non-durable supplies like seedlings, seeds, mulch, and compost. In the future, I can probably limit myself to $100 of expenses, because I now know where to get bulk mulch and compost. I had planned to keep an equally careful account of food harvested, but I abandoned that during this difficult summer. Hopefully I can track next year, because I would like to prove to myself that gardening is thrifty.
     I managed to take pictures at the start of most months, and they let me tell the story of the garden this year.
     By June (above) I had two plots, but I spent the first month or two eating salads of weeds because nothing else was big enough. Andrew stood in the back to show the size of the plot, so I did that in future pictures too.
     In early July we had several trellises, including an incredible winter squash trellis on the right. Sadly, the winter squash all rotted, so I will have to try using the trellis again next year. In July I ate zucchini, green beans, tomatoes, and basil.
     I'm shorter than my husband was, so it's harder to see me in the back of this picture taken in early September. During August, I ate more green beans, more tomatoes, beets, and watermelon. I also discovered that you can eat sweet potato leaves, both in salads and stir fried.
     This last picture is of course a bit sad, because it has Andrew in it. But it also makes me happy, because we were so proud of the very first harvest - one zucchini and a basil.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Earning a living

In a conversation with my uncle this week, I was reminded that I had not talked very much about what I do for a living. I started my new job in April, so I have had about four months to figure out what it's all about. If you're an academic, the short way to explain it is: I do 100% service. (Translation for non-academics: professors typically have three components to their job: research, teaching, and service to the professional/university community.)

The longer way to explain it is that I work for a professional organization of physicists. If you are a physicist in the U.S., you likely belong to this organization, because you read their journal and attend their conferences. I work in the department that specializes in education and diversity, so we work on projects to increase the number of high school physics teachers in the U.S., or to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities earning undergraduate or graduate degrees in physics. Instead of spending time on education research, I plan conferences, supervise grant programs, and assist committees in their activities.

I am happy in this job, because I really support the mission of the department and of the company. I use many of the skills I learned in graduate school, like synthesizing education literature and writing, and I get to help the larger physics community think about issues of education and diversity. I also work with a great group of people, and, in my experience, a good working environment makes the difference between an acceptable job and an outstanding job. One more thing I love? I have an office with one wall of windows, with a great view of the woods surrounding the building.

Monday, August 26, 2013


My neighbor told me that my clothesline is depressing. She's a friend, and she's also right, so I didn't take it the wrong way. I want to wear mourning, and I have decided that black and white are a combination that could still look professional at the office.

I have always liked rituals and traditions. Some are tiny traditions that simply bring me joy, like having coffee outside on the front porch most mornings. Some help me stay connected, like my annual Christmas cards and letters to extended family. And now I'm developing rituals related to sadness as well. It doesn't feel like our current culture has many widely-accepted rituals for grief, beyond a funeral, so I'm having to make them up, or look back through history, to figure out what I can do.


On a more prosaic note, I am making good progress in keeping up with some of the day-to-day aspects of life. The dog has been a challenge for me, because Ada was always Andrew's responsibility. He walked her for up to an hour a day, and did all the training with her. With the help of my mother, who's been staying with me for the past month, I'm doing most of the walks, and I've started looking around for dog groups where the dog can socialize. Dog groups are also for me, because I need to balance my responsibility to keep my dog happy with my need to start making additional friends.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Points of light

It's not quite like I have good days and bad days; it's more like I have mostly okay days, punctuated with very-not-okay moments. When I'm very-not-okay, I do not feel like posting on the blog, so that means that what ends up here should be steady writing.

I was thinking today about George Bush the Senior's "thousand points of light". I never expected to quote George Bush, but it is an apt metaphor to say that I have a lot of points of light in my life right now. I'm going to use this post to acknowledge them.

  • In the first week, there was a great deal to do. I had no idea how much work needs to be done when someone dies: you may need to arrange housing and meals for visiting family members, pick up relatives from the airport, notify practically everyone you've ever met, decide what kind of funeral to have, find a religious leader to conduct it, and choose a funeral home. I leaned on a lot of people, and that got me through it. I have a core group of friends from our time at the University of Maryland, and I found I could give them assignments, like, "Please make sure my parents-in-law get picked up at the airport and taken to their hotel when they arrive from England," and it just got done. They cooked meals, spent time with me, arranged a memorial website, planned and paid for the meal after the funeral, and did a lot of driving. They did a lot of chores, without me thinking about it, so I could do the stuff no one else could do, like plan a funeral.
  • One set of friends flew to DC the day after they heard about Andrew's death, just to keep me company. One of them, R, spent the next ten days with me. He took all that time off of work, and was simply there for me. He made sure I drank enough water, and that I always had tissues to cry into. He took notes on tasks I needed done. He chauffuered relatives. He even went with my mother and I to find a dress I could wear to the funeral.
  • My job was great. I've only worked at my company for three months, but they cobbled together enough accumulated vacation time, comp time, and bereavement time that I could have a funeral and spent time with Andrew's family before heading back to work.
  • My family and Andrew's family have been wonderful. They all got here as soon as they could, and they grieved with me. My in laws shared stories of Andrew when he was a kid, and my niece and nephew put on a play in which their roles were "Aunt Renee" and "Uncle Andrew" (because that's how you make sense of stuff like this when you are four and seven).
  • I'm also grateful about paperwork. Andrew died without a will, and I was prepared for months of paperwork, probate, and court dates. But we happened to be in a sweet spot - we had paid off our debts but not accumulated much savings, which meant that I qualified for a super-straightforward version of probate that was completed on the spot. Within one day I had transferred his assets to my name, including the title for the car and motorcycle. Working with government bureaucracy is not my favorite activity, but this couldn't have gone more smoothly.
These are all people and situations that I wanted to publicly acknowledge. I am so grateful for the friends, colleagues, and family that help me DO all the things that needed doing. The rest of the grieving takes time, but I can do that at my own pace.

Monday, August 12, 2013


Tomorrow would have been my fifth wedding anniversary. As it approached, I had been joking to Andrew that we only had 45 more years to go, because a golden anniversary was our goal. I might even say that the opportunity to celebrate our golden anniversary was why we got married.

I was ready to marry Andrew about a year after we met, but he was much less sure about the whole idea. We spent a number of months discussing marriage, but he just wasn't ready to commit. (To be fair, he was only 22 when I met him, while I was 30.) After about a year of these discussions, in which I was trying (and not really succeeding) to be patient, I came to him one night with the Washington Post where I had been reading the anniversary announcements and told him that I wanted to that to be me - I wanted to celebrate my silver and golden wedding anniversary with him. Something clicked inside him, and he proposed.

That is a nice memory, but tomorrow's going to be a rough day.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Here, now

I don't really know how to begin my blog again, so I'll just try my best, which is how I'm going through my life right now anyway.

Everyone wants to know how Andrew died. I think this is a way of trying to make sense of what was a very sudden death of a young healthy person. The short answer is that he tripped while jogging. I wasn't with him but he was able to call me, and I call the paramedics. When I got to him, he seemed to be in a lot of pain, and I thought he had broken some ribs. In fact, he had suffered an aneurysm and died less than two hours after the fall, in spite of speedy and excellent emergency care.

The longer answer, and the reason he died from a simple fall, is that he suffered from Marfan syndrome. This is a disease of the connective tissues, and affects all parts of the body. People who have it frequently die at a very young age, and it not unusual that the first sign of the disease in an aneurysm. We never knew that he had this disorder, and in fact never suffered from any of the pain or other symptoms. I am quite confident that he felt healthy and strong during his whole life until that very morning, and I comforted by the fact that he was able to live fully while he was alive.

There's more to say, about how I'm doing, and how many friends and family have supported me in the last two weeks, but that's enough for now.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


If you know me in person, then you've probably heard the news. Last Thursday, my husband suddenly died from a pre-existing condition. This was utterly unexpected, and of course has been devastating. I am grateful that my friends and family have surrounded me. His family will arrive this week, and the funeral will be held on Sunday.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Ready for fall

When I was an exchange student in Germany, my host mother taught me how to knit. There are only two basic stitches in knitting, and after that it's all about the ways you combine them.  In the years after Germany, I managed a few scarves and one sweater. But when I moved to Miami, I put away my knitting needles, because I couldn't imagine wanting to wear anything knitted in the subtropics. Once we moved back to Maryland, we experienced just enough cool weather to remind me that I don't own slippers any more. Amazon's cheapest pair was $12, which I thought was a bit steep. I couldn't find my old needles, so I bought a set of knitting needles for the same price as the slippers, and some yarn at a thrift shop. In just a couple of weeks, I had slippers. The only thing left to do is to apply some rubber paint on the soles so that there will be a bit more friction between the yarn and the floor.
On the website where I found this pattern, the knitter had posted a picture of a dozen different slippers. I think I know why she knitted so many - it's addictive to spend ten or hours an a project and have a complete item of clothing at the end of it. And now that I have needles, I need to find even more things to knit.

Friday, July 19, 2013


     My time in the City of Roses is nearly done. It's been a very good trip, work-wise, but there's no denying that nine days is a long time to be away from home. I've always liked Portland. It's accessible-  you can walk across most of the downtown in about a half an hour. It's vegetarian-friendly and full of food trucks with really excellent food. I even ate some Georgian (the country, not the state) food, which was interesting and just foreign enough that I couldn't decide if I liked it or not. I also can't decide if I'd like living here. The summers are beautiful - boy am I glad I missed a week of 90F+ weather in DC- and the political tone is decidedly liberal. There are lots of public spaces with fountains you can play in and live music. However, everyone seems to be very, very hip. As I am not a hip person, I feel just a bit out of step.
     In between many meetings, I squeezed in some sightseeing. The city has a huge public rose garden, where I discovered that roses can smell like peaches, or like lemon pledge, or even, well, roses.
     The Portland hipster vibe results in a high density of vintage stores, which I happily visited. I bought a new hat, which was perfect for a trip to the park.

     The most peaceful part of the week was a trip to the Japanese Garden. I hadn't intended to go, but a co-worker wanted to see it. I turned out to be exquisite - huge redwood trees, carefully placed waterfalls and paths, and raked rock gardens. In the distance, we could see Mount Hood. I suspect that this photo will just look like a great wall of green; I guess you'll have to trust me that it was a perfectly proportioned view.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Gone for a while

I'm in Portland, Oregon right now, at the start of a nine-day business trip. Posts will probably be rare. In the meantime, my husband's sister had a birthday recently, and he made her this awesome photo card. Bonus points if you can find the cat.

Monday, July 08, 2013

A very American Fourth

   During the previous Fourth of July weekend, my brother and his family were visiting. We tried our best to check off all the boxes in a typical DC summer weekend.
   First, we went to a picnic. There are no pictures of this, but I was particularly please that the hosts invited many vegetarians because that made the potluck extra delicious for me. I am now inspired to try making my own grilled paneer. I can also recommend taking mint limeade (no recipe required: mint, sugar, lime juice, water and ice) to a picnic in 90F-degree weather. I can guarantee that you will be the most popular attendee.
   Then we hit the beach. I miss the white sand of the Miami beaches, but these beaches made up for their lack of tropical-ness with their abundance of cute children to whom I am related.

   We splurged for day passes on the metro ($14 a person adds up pretty quickly). Metro trains pretty much count as an amusement park ride for the under-8 crowd, so this was worth it.

    We stopped for pictures outside the White House. There are always a million protests taking place near the White House. Some are for well known-causes (for/against abortion, Egypt) and other protesters just seem to be there for the long term with more general goals, like peace. In any case, it always provides me with a strong sense of place to be surrounded by all these politically-active people.
   We ended by going to the zoo. A word to the wise - if you think the weather is too hot to go to the zoo, it is. Not only were we miserable, the animals were all hiding in cool, shady places. So we braved the heat and humidity to look at a lot of rocks. Said my brother: "If you just pretend it's an arboretum, it's a nice place to be."

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Independence Day

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, and my husband and I will be celebrating our independence, along with the nation. For the first time in (eep!) nineteen years, I am debt free. Between us, we have two Bachelor's, one Master's, and two Ph.D.'s degrees. We also had a bunch of student loans.* As of yesterday, we have paid off the very last one. Now, back to your regularly scheduled picnics and fireworks.

*Public Service Announcement: PhDs in the hard sciences do not cost money, they pay you money. You do lose potential earnings while you study, but in the US, the norm is that science graduate students receive tuition benefits, health insurance, and a modest salary. If your child is considering graduate school in art history vs. chemistry, tell her this! I did not know this vital piece of information when making a career choice, and I was lucky I didn't choose history.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013


As a childfree person, I don't have pictures of cute kids to post on my blog. So I hope this picture of a cute mushroom will suffice. When I saw this mushroom, on my way to work, I finally understood that the cartoon drawings of Smurf houses are based on real mushrooms.

I think all this gardening has me paying a lot more attention to nature than I did in the past...

Monday, July 01, 2013


It's been a week of culture here at the Styling homestead. During the summer, a nearby historic house hosts weekly free jazz concerts, so Andrew and I walked over and attended one. It was raining when they started, so they moved the concert inside, providing us with a peek at the interior of the house. The Riversdale Mansion was built by the Belgian and British founders of the tiny town in which we now live. It was lovely to sit in an old drawing room, listening to live music, and to imagine sitting in that same room 200 years ago listening to live music.

My parents visited us over the weekend, and my father is the kind of guy who can't pack enough into a weekend. So I soaked in even more culture. We saw a play, then attended the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. This annual festival features one country and two topics of cultural interest. This year we learned about Hungary, endangered languages of the world, and African American fashion and dress. I must admit that I actually skipped Hungary, because I was entranced by a lecture on African-American church hats. I wear hats, but I couldn't wear any of the hats they showcased; small women in big hats tend to look like mushrooms, I'm afraid. I also really loved the performances on endangered languages, because they were almost universally about cultures I've never heard of. It was pretty amazing to hear poetry written in a language I had never heard, translated into Spanish, and then translated into English. I think perhaps the literature student in me is lurking under the scientist suit I wear every day.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Summer evenings

Last night we sat out watching the fireflies flit around above the lawn. Andrew didn't grow up with them, so he is still enjoying the novelty. An acquaintance who was recently visiting from Arizona pointed out the fireflies are a bit magical for anyone who sees them rarely. If you don't grow up in a place with fireflies, then you know them only through movies and comic books. Then you go for a trip, and BOOM! Real live bugs with glowing bottoms. It's pretty amazing.

Much more than in the past, I find myself consciously appreciating where I live. I've moved many times in my life, and I never lived anywhere that I didn't like. But like it or not, Miami was a far different climate than the places I grew up, and it turns out that I crave living in a climate like the Midwest. The DC area definitely fits the bill, with the added bonus that the winters are a bit shorter and the growing seasons are a bit longer. I am so very happy to be here.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Absence makes the heart...

Andrew has been away this week visiting my family in Ohio. Most of the time, I'm the one going away and leaving him to tend the house and pets, because I travel much more for my job than he does. This is the first time in several years that I've been home while he's away. I don't think I properly appreciate all he does around the house. I struggled to do all the morning chores before I needed to leave for work each day, and it was a lot of extra work to walk the dog each morning and night. I especially missed him when I had to do all the disgusting chores - the daily flea combing and the morning when the dog got sick repeatedly all over the house. My husband is a real trooper about doing the disgusting chores. It must be part of that English attitude about unpleasant experiences building character - he never complains.

Right before Andrew left we finished the last of the unpacking. There are no more boxes sitting out anywhere in the house (as long as you don't count the single box of stuff that's ready to be donated). This makes me feel properly settled. So, how would I grade the new apartment? I'd give it a solid A-. The pluses: It's spacious and has beautiful wood floors that are just worn enough that I don't have to worry if I end up leaving a tiny scratch. There are lots of windows, and, once we purchased more shelving, enough places to store things. We have off-street parking for the car and motorcycle, and we're near public transportation. The minuses: the refrigerator is tiny (I'm taller than the fridge, and I'm not really known for my towering height), we have to pay pet fees every month, and the laundry facilities are not ideal. The laundry situation is still working itself out, in fact. There are coin-operated machines available one house over, and this is certainly preferable to a laundromat. However, it costs $6 to wash and dry one load. Even if we were careful, that would quickly add up to about $50 a month, which is, to my mind, completely unacceptable. So we've gone old school: we wash our clothes with one of these, spin them semi-dry in one of these, and then hang them out to dry. Mostly this works, but it's a lot more work than using a washing machine, no doubt about it. I'm sure that in a year or two, when we're living somewhere else, we will appreciate having a washing machine once again, just as I now appreciate having 800 glorious square feet of space in this apartment. Absence does make the heart grow fonder, after all.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Mucking around in the dirt

Oh, its been too long between posts again. Can I use work as an excuse? I love my new job very much. However, we hosted several conferences in a row and I worked the weekend a bunch of 12- hour days. There's nothing like 12-hour days to make your regular 8-hour day feel like a walk in the park.
When I'm not working, though, I've been putting in a garden. If you live in our apartment house, you can request one of the on-site garden plots. This year there weren't that many takers, so we actually got two plots. In the picture to the left, Andrew is showing the border of our 20' by 20' garden. For a first garden, that's pretty big. It is, for example, larger than our previous house.
I've never been in charge of a garden before, although I was an (unwilling) weeder in my mother's garden. It is nicer to weed when you were the one who chose all the plants. I imagine that it will be more fun, however, when I'm harvesting. In fact, we have already harvested - one extremely prevalent weed is edible, and we ate a salad of it today. I'll report tomorrow if we find out that our assessment of "edible" is incorrect.

Monday, May 27, 2013

A weekend in the country

Andrew and I took advantage of our new proximity to Ohio and drove there to visit my brother and his family for Memorial Day weekend. It wasn't convenient for us to stay with them, so we thought we'd stay at my parents' house. My parents are in Peru, but we know where the spare key is, so there was no problem getting into the house.

Staying at someone else's house while they're away is like having your own vacation home in the country. We decided to live it up while we were there, so we invited my brother and sister-in-law and the kids, and had a great weekend.

We took naps in the hammock.

They also had some comfy hanging chairs. Bryce likes to nap in as many places as he can.

We had a cookout. But then we thought we should enjoy all the amenities of the vacation home.

We took advantage of the large-capacity washing machine.

Stacey and I did a bit of welding.

Shawn and Andrew repaired the roof. Unfortunately, the sledgehammer was the only tool we could find.

We dined al fresco.

To cap off the day, we took a drive in the Rambler.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Live long and prosper!

It might not be a big event in everyone's world, but the opening of the new Star Trek movie is a major event for my Star Trek group. If you don't remember, I belong to a Star Trek group, which is basically a group of physicist friends who met weekly throughout graduate school to watch some Star Trek, hang out, and drink beer. As time went on, different couples joined or left, and we started watching only one episode a night, giving us more time to catch up. When we moved away from each other, we started meeting virtually. We video chat for an hour, watch an episode on our individual computers, then video chat some more. I have been really grateful to have this regular contact with old friends, something that's hard to come by when you're moving a lot.

This weekend the current Star Trek group will be convening, in person, for the new movie. This is make a bit easier by the fact that two-thirds of the group now live in DC, but it still means that people are flying in from Boston and New Mexico.

Monday, May 13, 2013

This and that

In answer to the questions from the previous post:

I deal with video and photos in my work quite frequently, so of course I had the cat, dog, and husband each sign waivers allowing me to use their pictures (in perpetuity and including use in mediums not yet invented) for publicity purposes of the Styling with Renee Michelle brand.

We have, indeed, blocked off a door with the couch. (See the picture from last week.) The bedroom has two entrances - one through the hallway and one through the living room. They were both convenient, but the only way to put the couch in the living room was to block the door. This may turn out to be inconvenient in the long run, but now I am so busy dodging the piles of unpacked boxes that one closed door is, in comparison, an easily ignored annoyance.

The purpose-built couch stayed in Miami. I knew that there would not be room in my new office for the couch (because it has a wall of windows, which I love even more!) The other postdoc in the group gladly took possession of it; luckily, she is not especially tall, so she can nap on it too. In fact, she also gave a home to my painted couch as well.

In other news, my husband and I discovered that, during the three years we were away from Maryland, the state has adopted new license plates commemorating the War of 1812. (See picture here.) As one of us is a pacifist and the other was on the losing side of this war, we're mildly disgruntled. But note that we weren't annoyed enough to actually spend money on one of those fund-raising plates that we could have had instead.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Taking my time

One of the terrific things about my new job is the commute -it's one mile, and I walk it every day. Until I actually started this, I didn't realize exactly much more wonderful this would be, compared to my previous 45-minute car commute. I stroll through our neighborhood, enjoying the birds and (rather frequently) the sound and smell of rain hitting the trees. In the mornings, since Andrew is still working from home, he and the dog walk me into work. In the evenings, the walk is my decompression time after work, and I'm pretty relaxed by the time I walk in the door.

In other news, the unpacking continues. We managed to find a great secondhand couch last weekend, and we've been appreciating having such a large couch for lounging. In fact, some members of the household are particularly appreciative.

Monday, May 06, 2013

What else is there to say?

The new house comes fully equipped with ninja attack squirrels to entertain the cat.*

*I am so pleased when I can contribute to the world supply of cute cat photos. Isn't that what the Internet is for, after all?

Settling in

The best way to appreciate all the little creature comforts of home is to take them all away, and then, each day, give one back to yourself. We moved into our house a week ago, and for three or four days, we had only what we had brought in the car. So we slept on an air mattress, cooked in a single pot, and ate with the two forks I had packed. It was delightful when the pods arrived with our belongings, but since Andrew and I are both working full time, we only have a few hours to unpack each night. (And since I'm working at a brand new job, I use all my brain power there and have no energy left for household chores when I get home.) The unpacking is happening slowly, and each time I unpack a new item, I am delighted to see it again. Oh, clean towels, what a treat! And the next day I may discover a colander, so that I no longer have to drain the pasta by holding the lid tightly to the pan. On Saturday we discovered the bed sheets, and I was so happy I could have sung a song. I had no idea that sleeping on a sheet-less bed for a week would be so awful, but it turned out to be an unbearable symbol of an unwelcoming apartment.

The apartment is slowly turning into a home, and thereby becoming a bit more delightful each day. The trains still roar by, a few hundred yards from our front door, but they no longer wake me (or the dog) each night. We've purchased shelves, so there's somewhere to put the mountain of kitchen gear I own. I won't feel really settled until the boxes are all unpacked, but it's definitely a good start.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Magical Pony Unicorn God of Travel has forsaken me

My extended family practices worship of the Magical Pony Unicorn God of Travel (see here, here, and here for more details). 
The main point is, if you don't travel with due respect and humility for the Travel Gods, you will suffer. And, apparently, I have not been making the appropriate sacrifices. My trip to Ohio was not exactly a calamity, but travel did not go as smoothly as I hoped. I had direct flights between Miami and Cleveland, an easy 2 and a half hour flight in a puddle-jumper plane. (The first mistake: assuming that the flight would be “easy”.) Although I arrived an hour before my flight left, there were some snafus, and I missed my flight. The reservation agent at the gate was very nice, and she quickly booked me new flights, which would connect in La Guardia (so, no more direct flight). An airplane golf cart even whisked me across the entire terminal, and I made it to New York without a hitch. When I got there, however, I discovered that the airport had been evacuated due to a bomb scare. (This was the day after Boston, and it turned out to be some innocent wires hanging from a light fixture.) Luckily, I arrived when the had started letting passengers back into the terminal. Unluckily, American airlines' computers had shut down, world-wide. While I sat there in the gate, flight after flight piling up, it did occur to me that if I hadn't missed my flight, I would have been at Ohio already. I tried to stay philosophical, though, because I was on vacation and didn't have any urgent plans that day. After a few hours, they announced that the Cleveland flights (and only the Cleveland flights, as far as I could tell), would be allowed to board. That was because the flights were tiny, and half-empty. The combined two flights of people in a puddle-jumper, took our boarding passes and used a hole-puncher on them (remember, every single computer was down), and the pilots filled out the paperwork by hand. I arrived in Cleveland 6 hours late, and I counted myself lucky.

The trip back started out more auspiciously. I arrived with plenty of time to spare, and the flight to Miami proceeded according to plan, right until we started circling Miami. That's when they announced that the entire airport was shut down, due to a huge storm. We diverted to Ft. Meyers, on the other side of Florida, to refuel, and we arrived only a few hours late. 

In spite of this all, I can report that my vacation was terrific. I sat around bonfires and talked for hours with my parents, I helped my dad do some maintenance on a old bicycle, and I learned that my brother can make authentic cardamom-flavored, stewed chai tea. My sister-in-law and I shopped for flowers (although we ended up being unable to plant them, due to surprise snow showers). I made coloring books for my niece and nephew. I did all the everyday things that I would do if I lived closer to all of them. And then I counted my lucky stars that we're moving to DC, where I'll only be a short, six-hour drive from my parents.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On my way, more or less

Sunday was my last hurrah in Miami, when I got to march in the Gay Pride Parade in Miami Beach. A group of people from my church, along with some members of PFLAG, marched. A few of us went with an Americana theme, so I went as Rosie the Riveter. I'm not really quite built like the Rosie shown on the poster, so I relied on making the fist and yelling "We can do it" to reinforce my costume.

Then I went home and packed and packed and packed. I leave today for a week-long trip to visit my family, and when I get back, my husband will have taken all those boxes I packed and have crammed them into shipping pods which will take themed Maryland. This is the second time that I've managed to not actually be present for my own move, and I think I'll owe Andrew big for this one.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Room to expand

Our new apartment has 800 square feet of space. (That's 75 square meters for the non-Americans) This is the largest living space Andrew and I have ever shared and it more than doubles the amount of space we have right now. We're a bit giddy at the prospect. Last week, Andrew said, excitedly, "We can have a full-sized trash can in the bathroom at the new place." This is true, because right now we use a a stainless steel ice bucket as a trash can; it is precisely large enough to hold one bottle of wine, which make it a tiny, slim trash can. Personally, I am more excited about the idea of having a couch. In this house, we only had enough room for a love seat. This meant we couldn't both sit on the couch along with the dog, and neither of us could stretch out our full length on the love seat.

So, any suggestions? What would you do if your living space suddenly doubled?

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Big news - we're moving!

My house is filled with boxes and I have a to-do list that's a page long. The cause of all this? We're moving! I'm happy to report that we're moving (back) to the Washington, DC area. In fact, we'll be only a few miles from where we lived back in graduate school. I've accepted a job as an education program manager with the American Physical Society, which is the professional organization for physicists. I think the job is a wonderful opportunity in a terrific working environment and I'm quite excited to be back in DC. This move gets us closer to my parents (only a seven-hour drive) and puts Andrew in range of many universities, which is good for his job prospects. Of course, I am sad to be leaving all my terrific co-workers and the friends that we've made in Miami. We've already found a house, so I'm madly packing so that we're ready when the moving truck arrives in two weeks.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

In which I present a lecture on St. Augustine history

Last weekend we went camping near St. Augustine. I've been itching to visit the city, because it's the oldest city in the U.S. (founded 1565). I read a lot of history before we went, and it can be roughly summed up as follows:
1. The French settled in Florida.
2. The Spanish slaughtered them. Seriously, the valley where this happened is now called Matanzas (Slaughter) Valley.
3. The Spanish killed a bunch of Native Americans.
3. The English invaded from Georgia.
4. The Spanish tried their best to kill the English.
5. Eventually, Florida was transferred from the Spanish to the English, back to the English, and then to the U.S. (but not until 1819).

Basically, it is a very bloody history. This was especially apparent on our trip, since we visited two forts (Fort Matanzas and Castillo de San Marcos) and saw a demonstration of cannon fire.

St. Augustine also had a rather tragic history during the 1960's. The city became nationally known when it planned the 400th anniversary of its founding, but didn't include African Americans in the celebration. As a result of this lack of inclusion and rampant segregation, there were months of protests. The civil rights activists were aided by Martin Luther King, who helped make the St. Augustine protests nationally known so that the Civil Right Act of 1964 would get passed. In the end the Act was passed, but protesters continued to be harassed, beaten, and killed by the Ku Klux Klan while the St. Augustine authorities continued to support segregation. Reading about it made me appreciate how far we've come, even though I know how much work is left to be done to make the country truly equitable.

In contrast to that part of history, the camping was peaceful. We like to camp "rustic", which means no water or electricity at the campsites. Luckily we didn't have to haul our water from home, since they had water at a different part of the campsite. The best part of the camping, as far as I'm concerned, was that we saw an armadillo. It was crashing around our campsite for a good part of the evening - I assume that their armor protects them from the need to quietly avoid predators. The less fun part of our trip was the sleeping arrangements. We threw out our air mattress because it has sprung a leak, so we slept on the ground. Can anyone recommend a good alternative to air mattresses?

Friday, March 29, 2013

Dinner at home

We invited friends over for dinner last weekend. It was a sort of combination dinner/dog play date, although the reality is that the dogs ignore each other more than play (which is just fine with me, because the dogs seems to only have three interaction modes: play, ignore, and fight). 
I suggested making Mexican, and it turned out that one of them had returned from Mexico last week, bringing a suitcase of fresh tortillas home with her. suggested making Mexican, and it turned out that one of them had returned from Mexico last week, bringing a suitcase of fresh tortillas home with her.

Since it was a casual evening, I didn't do a lot of cooking. I keep ready-to-eat beans in the freezer. In this case, I had beans cooked with salsa, onions, and summer squash, which I reheated and we ate on top of the tortillas. The tortillas were, indeed, the best tortillas I've ever eaten. And I'll have to savor that memory, because Mexican food is pretty rare in Miami.
As always, we were reminded that dogs are scavengers, and the hopeful eyes are everpresent at dinner.